Sunday 29 January 2023

Helgoland - Carlo Rovelli (2020)


Rating: Excellent

Carlo Rovelli is an Italian theoretical physicist who has written a number of fascinating books about quantum theory, some of which are still languishing unread in my collection, but I bought Helgoland recently on a trip to Melbourne and, for some intuitive reason, I needed to read it now rather than later. I'm pleased that I did. Rovelli is an important physicist who has worked on the problem of linking classical physics with quantum physics, developing the theory of loop quantum gravity (not the subject of this book). Helgoland begins with Werner Heisenberg's allergy lead retreat to the German island of Helgoland in 1925, where he worked on the the mysteries of atomic behaviour and came up with the observational interpretation of quantum theory. Such insights led directly to the famous thought experiment by Erwin Schrödinger concerning the cat in the box that could either be alive or dead until it is observed. Here's where Rovelli comes in, with the relational interpretation of quantum mechanics, which helps to deal with the problem of reality needing an observer in order to collapse the probability wave functions of the quantum realm into solid observable 'reality'. Confused? Well, first I'd advise you to read one of the best books about quantum theory for the lay-person, Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You by Marcus Chown (2005), and then read Helgoland. Cutting to the chase, however, relational interpretation posits that as quantum objects interact with other quantum objects, they are 'observed' in the course of interacting. Reality is like a hall of mirrors. In this regard Rovelli's arguments appear sound and compelling.

Heisenberg, had bad allergies

Rovelli is a fine writer, able to convey difficult concepts in a way that can be deciphered by the average person. In my opinion getting some kind of grasp on quantum physics is essential for having a deeper relationship with the universe, and therefore, reality. Rovelli also ventures into philosophical territory, but in a manner that avoids potential eye-rolling. The characters than founded quantum theory are also fascinating characters, Heisenberg, Bohr, Born, Einstein, Engels and Schrödinger, among others, are worth reading about in their own right. Rovelli touches upon these physicists in regards to how they reacted to Heisenberg's insights (that were then backed up by experiments), and it is a compelling story, one that continues today, as Rovelli is just one in a long line of thinkers to tackle quantum mechanic's mysteries. If the relational interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct, then the implications are massive, including doing away with the need for an observer (in terms of humans, life and 'God'). It also, quite possibly, makes the concept that all probabilities exist all at once, with most hidden in parallel universes, redundant. It's a theory that always seemed ridiculous to me. In any case, although Helgoland does not need someone to be reading it for it to exist, go out and buy a copy and give it a read, it will spark those synapses and change the way you view the world.

Helgoland, had no pollen

Monday 9 January 2023

Losing Face - George Haddad (2022)


Rating: Excellent

The first book club read of the year, and it is a doozy. Losing Face is George Haddad's first full length novel and it is superb. Firstly, Haddad's prose style is snappy and authentic, he hasn't tried anything too stylistically audacious, and the novel is all the better for it. The narrative is well constructed and deals with such weighty themes as rape culture, toxic masculinity, failure to launch, the nature of friendship and generational dysfunction and trauma. If it all sounds bleak, well perhaps it is to a degree, but Haddad writes so well that the story is absorbing and is therefore a pleasure to read. The main protagonist, Joey Harb, is a nineteen-year old lost in Sydney's western suburbs, barely holding down a job at Woolworths and hanging with his best mates, Kyri and Emma and also an assortment of fuck-ups content to put life on the back-burner in order to chase the next high. There's Joey's extended family, his mother Amal, brother Alex and, most significantly his grandmother, Elaine, who is an important character in her own right. All of the characters are totally authentic, it's as if you are there among them, part of the family, or out of it on drugs at a dance festival. Haddad gets the dialogue totally right, in particular the interactions between Elaine and her Lebanese friends and between Joey and his mates, forever on their phones and using slang to express their inarticulate trains of thought.

The reader gets to know Joey quite readily, which makes his inevitable descent into a terrible situation an ever present threat. When this part of the book begins the dread is palpable. The sexual assault scenes are brilliantly written, being both too much to bear and unputdownable. Joey's life is forever changed due to his naiveté and lack of awareness of the severity of the situation he finds himself in. The aftermath is compelling in its inevitably. Haddad cleverly weaves many shades of grey into the narrative, both in terms of Joey's situation and that of his grandmother's, Elaine, who has her own dysfunctions to deal with. The court scenes are mainly told through her eyes, adding layers of pathos to an unfortunately familiar tragic story. Most impressive is the denouement, in which Joey still finds it hard to find a way forward beyond the kind of aimlessness and lifestyle that endangered him in the first place. There's a path to redemption, but it's uncertain. Losing Face should be read by all of the Joey's out there, but they'd never read such a novel. Perhaps Losing Face should be part of the school curriculum, it would be a challenging but worthwhile read for teenagers growing up in the me-too era.